Thursday, December 17, 2015

He reads the Agricultural Reports, and some other books – The Best Books of 1815

We are looking at an 1815 drawing by Hokusai that I copied from p. 194 of Hokusai by Gian Carlo Calza (1999, English translation 2003).  Calza suggests that the scene depicts the Azumaya bookshop.  The owner is on the right, a delivery boy with a bundle of text on the left, and a customer in the middle, choosing a book.

What book do you think he will buy?  Will it be one of the best Japanese books of 1815?  What were the best Japanese books of 1815?

I have picked up from what I have read about Japanese literary history that the 19th century is not thought of as a good period, a helpful judgment in that it gives me a good excuse to stay ignorant.  I enjoy playing with Best Books posts at the end of each year, but they are mementoes of my ignorance.

How many books from 1815 have I read?  I believe three, or perhaps only two, but I did read those books in particular because a long line of readers have kept them alive.  If not the best, they are the survivors.

In December 1815, Walter Scott would have topped the Best Books lists with his second novel, Guy Mannering.  Well, not Scott, but rather “The Author of Waverley.”  I do not know how high The Author of Pride and Prejudice &c. &c. would have ranked with Emma, but she was becoming pretty well-known by this point.

One of these novels is currently among the most popular in the world, while the other has retreated to graduate school, although Scott Bailey read it last spring and made it sound pretty good, if “very plotty.”  I’ve read seven Scott novels, but not Guy Mannering; what do I know.

The big celebrity bestseller of the year was Lord Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, a collection of song settings of original lyrics published in an expensive edition.  Byron was so popular that he could immediately sell ten thousand copies of even this book.  Current selections of Byron, even fat Penguins and Oxfords, come close to ignoring Hebrew Melodies, but it is the home of “She Walks in Beauty.”

It’s the next year, 1816, when miracles start to happen in English poetry.

I know of two great books in German literature from 1815: E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixir (or just its first half – I never got this straight), and Part II of the first version of Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales (Part I is from 1812).

The Hoffmann novel is great fun and a standard classic for German-language readers.  No idea why it has never done much in English.  Too weird?

The Grimm brothers’ book is of the highest importance.  Which book has generated the most additional books, Emma or Grimm’s’ Fairy Tales?  This second volume has “Hans My Hedgehog,” “The Goose Girl,” “The Golden Key” with its unending ending.  I have read the complete Fairy Tales, but not in this early form.  That would be worth doing someday.

So, within the bounds of my ignorance, then: after two hundred years of erosion, three great books left.

The title is borrowed from Emma.


  1. Your intriguing posting suggests an interesting approach to reading: reading "best sellers" from past years. Of course, such an enterprise would probably prove nothing about the quality of books but more about the "tastes" of book buyers in different years. All of this has me wondering about 2015's best-sellers. I think I'll do some research with an eye to doing some reading and assessment. Well, maybe.

  2. Sure, reading the best-sellers would tell you a lot about their quality. You would know how good they were!

    That's the beauty of the humanities - although I have no choice but to rely on hearsay and expert opinion for most artworks, to really know what something is I have to read and see and hear it for myself.

    Change in tastes is by itself an interesting topic, though. The fall of Scott, the rise (and further rise, and then enormous rise) of Austen - pretty interesting.

  3. Case against best-sellers:
    Prosecution evidence: The Da Vinci Code.
    I rest my case!

    BTW, Moby-Dick was NOT a best-seller; Melville could hardly give the book away. That should further settle the case.

  4. Wait, what case is being argued?

    Oh, I see. I meant "how good they were" in the sense of "how good or bad they were." Not that they'll all be good, which is crazy.

    Or maybe you are arguing some other case.

  5. Forgive my lack of clarity (nothing new for me). I guess I mean to argue that "best seller" status has no relationship to literary quality; some very good books sell well, but some very bad ones a runaway best-sellers, and some readers mistakenly equate popularity with quality. Does that make any sense?

  6. I will bet you three dollars that no one who reads Wuthering Expectations or Beyond Eastrod would disagree with any of that.

  7. The best poetry of 1815 was not being written by Byron or even Goethe but by a dirt-poor Buddhist monk from Japan's snowy boondocks; (a handful of his haiku from the winter of 1815, taken from haikuguy's great web site dedicated to translations Kobayashi Issa's poetry):

    mi hitotsu ni arashi kogarashi arare kana

    just for me
    a storm, winter wind
    and hail

    shigururu ya imasu kamakura kari kamome

    winter rain falls
    on Kamakura's residents,
    geeses, gulls...

    yabu hara ya nanno inga de nokoru kiku

    grassy thicket in winter--
    what karma lets
    the chrysanthemum survive?

    sayo chidori toshiyori-goe wa nakari keri

    plover birds on a winter night--
    not an old voice
    among them

    hota pokiri-pokiri namu amida butsu kana

    snap and crackle
    are perhaps the fire's
    "All praise to Amida Buddha!"

    hatsu yuki wo o[t]tsukunete mo hotoke kana

    first snow--
    even a lump of it
    is Buddha

    hatsu furi ya yuki mo hotoke ni nari ni keri

    first snowfall--
    it too
    becomes Buddha

    haikai wo mamorase tamae yuki-botoke

    guard over haiku
    I beseech you!
    snowman Buddha

    namu bashô mazu watago ni wa aritsukinu

    praise Basho!
    I've found my padded
    cotton vest

  8. Perfect. Just what this post needed. That translation project - 10,000 poems - is impressive.

  9. Why so few books from 1815, I wonder? I guess people were busy with other things. There was another memorable book published that year: Thorkelin's edition of Beowulf. Not only the first publication, but the first translation. That's something. Before that everybody had to make do with no Beowulf.

  10. I have many answers to that question, why so few books, so many answers that some of them might even be right. I should write them down some time.

    A first translation of Beowulf, even in Latin, counts as a major book.

  11. I was going to say that Narezhny's Rossiisky Zhilblaz [A Russian Gil Blas] was certainly up there with Emma, but on checking I found that my memory had played me false and it was actually published in 1814. But it's a great novel that has been unjustly forgotten, a salutary reminder that we can't take the Official Canon as a sufficient judge of quality any more than we can take the best-seller lists.

  12. Narezhny is just a name from Mirsky to me - aside from your piece.

    The canon does better than the best-seller lists with half of the equation. It gets rid of the false positives pretty effectively over time. It's the false negatives (like Mirsky's dismissal of Narezhny) that are the problems.

    1. You're one up on most people, for whom he's not even a name from Mirsky!